by Ben Cohen
News broke this week that the Facebook trending news team block news stories that could be of interest to conservative readers -- a revelation that undermines Facebook's reputation as an unbiased social network that adapts to what people are interested in, then disseminates content according to user preference.
If true, conservatives will no doubt find this outrageous. There are also several different ways of looking at this that make the morality of it less clear, particularly given the state of conservative news in America. But does the issue of Facebook's damaged integrity as a neutral, user generated platform trump all?
To answer this question, it is important to understand just how important Facebook is to how the majority to politically active people digest their news.
You have most likely arrived at this article from your Facebook feed -- either because you have liked our Facebook page and see our articles on a daily basis, someone you know shared the article, or you saw it on Facebook's "trending" news section.
You also most likely get most of your news from Facebook as the social networking platform is basically becoming the internet -- or as Columbia University's director of Digital Journalism put it, "eating the world".
Basically, Facebook now has the power to radically influence the way you see the world, and as an unaccountable private corporation, you only have a limited way of influencing how it operates. While there are many things you can do with your settings (which friends to follow, what sites you like, who can see your photos etc), the algorithms, news story selection and direction of the company are completely out of your hands. This wouldn't be a huge problem if Facebook was not the only game in town, but it now boasts over 1.5 billion users and has made virtually all media companies dependent on them for their survival (and we are no different). Facebook is immensely powerful, and they know it.
This makes the revelation that they have been suppressing conservative stories from their trending news section more than a little concerning. Here's how Gizmodo reported the story:
Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section, according to a former journalist who worked on the project. This individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users....
“Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,” said the former curator. This individual asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retribution from the company. The former curator is politically conservative, one of a very small handful of curators with such views on the trending team. “I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.”
To be fair to Facebook, it shouldn't be surprising that the majority of employees of a tech company based out of San Francisco are liberal -- it is the most liberal city in America, and Facebook is a company that was originally built for college students who are also notoriously liberal. Combined with the fact that the current iteration of conservatism in America is remarkably stupid, it is no wonder curators are reticent to promote news relating to Glenn Beck or Ted Cruz. Yes there are two major parties in America, but one consists of intelligent adults who believe in things like climate change and women's rights, while the other thinks that snow is proof global warming is a hoax, and old white men have the right to determine what women can do with their own bodies. There are no equivalencies between Right and Left in America, and Facebook is right to acknowledge this.
However, there is something to be said for the lack of transparency Facebook has shown over issues like this -- from their news feed algorithm, data collection, advertising policies and now their own trending story selection, the tech behemoth is not living up to its promise "to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected".
Facebook is such a powerful platform that it not only dictates what we read and who we stay connected with, it has the potential to be a major threat to governments around the world. We saw the role of social media in the Arab Spring, and given advancing technology and increased use, social media platforms are fast becoming the central focus of our lives. We keep in touch with friends and family on social media, organize events, transfer payments, make video and phone calls, sell products, build companies, get news and create virtual or real communities. It is impossible to know what social media networks will be like in the future, but it is clear that they will be even more integrated than they are now -- and that means complete transparency is needed to ensure trust them. The information we spread and communities we organize on platforms like Facebook can bring down governments and upend social structures -- a force so potent it cannot be held in private hands forever.
Facebook is now so big that there needs to be movement towards its democratization. It is owned by shareholders whose interests are entirely financial -- an anathema to its core principles as an open social network. If profit is the driving motivation, lack of transparency is almost guaranteed given the interests of the public do not often coincide with the interests of the ultra wealthy. Of course this isn't on the horizon any time soon, but the steady stream of leaks about Facebook's inner workings, its constantly shifting algorithms, and its lack of transparency over data collection and news story selection are issues that will instigate greater and greater levels of activism.
Of course Facebook will fight outside attempts to control it, as it always has done. But it is ultimately a battle they will lose, because social disruption isn't just a byproduct of Facebook's model, it is built into its very premise -- and just as governments are not immune to it, neither are they.